Provide Constructive Feedback

“Teachers’ response to student writing is as conspicuous and arresting a feature in composition teaching as Cyrano’s nose on his face. But mainstream scholarship in rhetoric and composition has never really looked in the mirror and realized the need to highlight this distinctive ‘nose’ in any serious theory of student composition.”

(Phelps, 2000, p. 92)

Constructive feedback is:

  • Timely
  • Specific
  • Task-focused

Teacher feedback is an understudied area of writing, so the research base is slim. This section summarizes the key points, provides guidance as you reflect on your feedback, and offers ideas for managing the time burden involved in providing high-quality feedback.

Make your feedback count! Teachers often focus on surface features rather than content. Students respond in kind, resulting in little improvement. Instill in your classroom an attitude that “considers the emerging text as an improvable object” (Haneda & Wells, 2000, p. 443). This attitude will help you and your learners focus on meaning and expression, which will free the processes of writing, revising, and thinking from a right/wrong approach.

Constructive feedback can:

  • Bridge understanding from expert (teacher) to novice (learner).
  • Scaffold metacognitive strategy use.
  • Focus on forms, models, and language choices appropriate to various academic literacies.
  • Provide individualized, personalized instruction.
  • Reinforce instruction given in whole groups.

“At first I edit the papers, ask them to rewrite and think about what mistakes may have been made. As the student progresses, we discuss the sentence structure, how they may be able to reword the sentences and combine the thoughts. Feedback from the teacher is very important because it helps [students] understand what they may have done incorrectly, and teacher editing decreases as the students progress, their individual comfort level increases, and their writings are greatly improved.”

Janet Lopes, Rhode Island TEAL Team

Writing Conferences

In independent, one-on-one writing conferences with learners, consider these steps for a successful conference:

  • In collaboration with the learner, establish a goal for the writing conference (e.g., clarify the requirement of the assignment and/or meaning of the writing prompt, review feedback on a particular section of writing; discuss use of writing conventions or particular writing style of focus).
  • Let the learner take the lead to introduce his or her work.
  • Know the learner’s work; have his or her portfolio ready.
  • Be patient, respect silence, and let the learner speak.
  • Look for the teachable moment; focus on one or two areas.
  • Keep it short; use a timer.
  • End with a few action items—in writing!

One way to check yourself for how well you are conducting conferences is either to audio
record a conference for later reflection or to ask a colleague to serve as a “critical friend”
who sits in on one or two of your conferences and provides coaching and reflection. As
you listen to the recording or the feedback, listen to the ratio of talk time. Reflect on:

  • Who is talking more—you or the learner?
  • Did you make the most of a teachable moment?
  • Was the conference really five minutes, or did it run much longer?
  • Did it end with an action item?

Managing the Time Burden

High-quality feedback takes time. TEAL teachers responded to a poll on how many
minutes per week on average are spent providing feedback. Their responses are shown
in Figure 5.

This figure presents responses to the question: How much time per week do you spend giving written feedback? Of the 47 teachers who responded to this question, approximately 12 indicated 10 minutes or less; approximately 6 indicated 11–20 minutes; approximately 11 indicated 21–30 minutes; approximately 13 indicated 31–60 minutes; and approximately 5 indicated More than 60 minutes.

The following tips may help you to address the time burden.

  • Don’t grade everything; intermittent feedback is effective.
  • Respond to first drafts, not finals. Students rarely revise a paper if it is not an assignment. Your suggestions are more likely to be processed in an intermediate draft.
  • Use peers as authentic readers, and train them to provide feedback.
  • Provide opportunities for authentic readers in the program, community, or world (via the Web). Authentic readers of published materials are great motivators for revision and best effort. But you can find authentic readers to serve as pen pals, providing feedback, too.

Choose a slice of writing such as a paragraph, and follow these steps to pass the responsibility for revision back to the writer. These steps are based on the work of Flower, Hayes, Carey, and Schriver (1986).

  1. Put checks at end of the lines, one per error.
  2. Students identify the error (detect).
  3. Students determine how to fix it (diagnose).
  4. Students revise the passage.
  5. Students create their own proofreading checklist.

Using Rubrics

Points to remember:

  • Rubrics are holistic tools.
  • Don’t use a single “cell” to make a decision or assign a score.
  • Help students weigh meaning as most important.
  • Use rubrics as a classroom and instructional management tool, not a skills assessment.



Flower, L., Hayes, J., Carey, L., & Schriver, K. (1986). Detection, diagnosis, and the strategies of revision. College Composition and Communication, 37, 16–55.

Haneda, M., & Wells, G. (2000). Writing in knowledge-building communities. Research in the Teaching of English, 34, 430–457.

Phelps, L. (2000). Cyrano’s nose: Variations on the theme of response. Assessing Writing, 7, 91–110.